Axios What's Next

Picture of a futuristic looking skyline.

Many wheelchair users want to be able to stay in their own chairs while taking to the skies, Alex reports today, in part to avoid injuries and damage.

Today's newsletter is 1,102 words ... 4 minutes.

1 big thing: Wheelchair users fight for travel rights

Illustration of a golden airplane wing pin engraved with the accessibility icon.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Logo: The Accessible Icon Project

Accessibility advocates are fighting for new rules that would ease air travel for passengers needing extra assistance, Alex writes — especially those requiring wheelchairs, who currently aren't allowed to sit in their own chair during flights.

Why it matters: While airlines are banned from discriminating against disabled travelers, the reality for many involves broken wheelchairs, degrading treatment and ruined plans.

  • Airlines mishandled 871 wheelchairs and scooters in January 2023 alone, per Department of Transportation data — or 1.6 for every 100 with which they were entrusted.
  • If passengers could sit in their own wheelchairs on flights, the thinking goes, the devices would be less likely to be damaged during travel.

Driving the news: Congress needs to re-up the Federal Aviation Administration's funding and operating authority by the end of September, making the next few months a key window for those seeking regulatory changes.

  • Many disability advocates want airlines to install wheelchair-friendly seats, eliminating the need for potentially dangerous seat-to-seat transfers and for wheelchairs to be stored in the cabin or luggage bay.

What they're saying: Research has found that it's both "feasible and practical" to allow wheelchair users to remain in their chairs on flights, says Paul Melmeyer, VP of public policy and advocacy at the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

  • "The size of the doors on airplanes are wide enough. The aisles once arriving within the airplane can be wide enough," he tells Axios. "There's space on there; there's fasteners that could be included."

Yes, but: Melmeyer and others are skeptical that airlines would voluntarily accommodate such changes, especially if it meant removing seats.

The other side: Some airlines are working on ways to better accommodate wheelchairs on flights — without losing sales.

  • Delta TechOps, a Delta Air Lines subsidiary that works on aircraft interiors and in-flight entertainment systems, recently unveiled a wheelchair-friendly prototype seat.
Delta Air Lines' prototype wheelchair-friendly seat.
Delta TechOps' prototype wheelchair-friendly seat. Image courtesy of Delta TechOps

Airlines say they're also working on other ways to improve disabled passengers' experience, including through better training, new mobility equipment and more.

  • "U.S. airlines are committed to offering a high level of customer service and providing a positive and safe flight experience for all passengers, especially passengers with disabilities," industry group Airlines for America told Axios in a statement.
  • Ongoing studies, meanwhile, are further testing the feasibility of wheelchairs on airplanes.

It's not just about engineering, says Madison Lawson, a 26-year-old with muscular dystrophy who requires a $70,000, custom-made power wheelchair to safely move about the world. It's also about education and humanity on the part of airport, airline and security workers.

  • "It's just a lack of empathy sometimes when mistakes are made, and just a lack of recognition for the weight of the situation," Lawson tells Axios. "It's not just a wheelchair — it's literally our legs and how people like me function in the world safely."
  • When her chair is broken during a flight, Lawson says, she has to wait at the airport to file a claim, then hope her chair can be repaired quickly — no guarantee, given frequent repair backlogs and parts shortages.

What's next: Recently introduced FAA reauthorization bills working their way through Congress include some significant reforms, including improved training requirements, heightened accessibility standards, and new means of holding airlines accountable when mistakes are made.

🥊 Reality check: The issue of wheelchair users sitting in their own chair on airplanes is likely to be tabled for another day, pending further research and development.

💭 Alex's thought bubble: Wheelchair users can roll up into a bus, a train or a baseball game. Should airplanes be any different?

Share this story.

2. AI-generated superbugs

Illustration of bacteria under a lens in the shape of binary code

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Recent genetic engineering advances, combined with AI, have dramatically reduced the skills, money and time needed to engage in bioterrorism, Axios' Ryan Heath reports.

Why it matters: Bioattacks have largely been assumed to be the province of governments, but now we face the prospect of more rogue individuals and organizations gaining the capability.

Driving the news: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers recently asked undergraduate students to test whether AI chatbots "could be prompted to assist nonexperts in causing a pandemic" — and found that the platforms suggested four pathogens within an hour.

  • The chatbots helped identify which pathogens could inflict the most damage, and even provided information not commonly known among experts.
  • The students were offered lists of companies that might assist with DNA synthesis and suggestions on how to trick them into providing services.

What they're saying: The MIT researchers recommend "pre-release evaluations of [chatbots] by third parties, curating training datasets to remove harmful concepts, and verifiably screening all DNA generated by synthesis providers or used by contract research organizations."

Reality check: Identifying or designing a synthetic virus on the screen is not the same as engineering it in a lab and then successfully releasing it.

  • AI could also help biodefense, with researchers telling Axios that it may be possible to create antibodies for viruses from scratch by sometime around 2025 — but that's a big maybe.

Read the rest.

3. Cyberattacks could force hospital closures

Illustration of a cursor arrow clicking the close button on a dialogue box top bar which is attached to the top of a hospital road sign

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Cyberattacks against hospitals are threatening to put the most financially vulnerable facilities out of business, Axios' Tina Reed reports.

Driving the news: The costs of recovering from a 2021 ransomware attack were too much for St. Margaret's Health in Spring Valley, Illinois, which closed last Friday.

  • Experts say it's an example of the potential financial toll of increasingly sophisticated attacks that have hijacked medical devices, taken websites offline and threatened health systems' financial ratings.

What they're saying: Some hospitals can't afford the "right amount of insurance" to help manage "what may be a catastrophic loss," says Rob Rosenzweig, the national cyber risk practice leader at brokerage firm Risk Strategies.

  • Reimbursement is only one of the potential financial impacts of a cyberattack, adds Moody's analyst Matthew Cahill.
  • There's also the cost of bringing in consultants to help address the breach, updating IT equipment, and lost revenue from diverted business and potential lawsuits.

The bottom line: The ultimate concern is that patients could be harmed if they can't access timely care because a local hospital is suddenly unavailable.

  • "If there's no other facility nearby to absorb that volume, patient lives could be at risk here," Cahill said.

Go deeper.

📸 4. Parting shot: Drone warfare training

An instructor provides drone training in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Photo: Sofiia Bobok/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

An instructor gives drone training to Ukrainian troops in Kharkiv on June 13, 2023.

  • Drones both large and small have been a major factor on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine war, with roles ranging from aerial reconnaissance to long-range attack missions.
  • Ukrainian forces in particular are using them to complement their traditional aircraft, helicopter and artillery fleets and battalions.

"This war is a war of drones they are the super weapon here," Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine's minister of internal affairs, told Newsweek.

Big thanks to What's Next copy editor Amy Stern.

Was this email forwarded to you? Get your daily dose of What's Next by signing up here for our free newsletter.